The Australian Cast of Ragtime - photo by Jeff BusbyThe Production Company could hardly have chosen a better musical to celebrate the culmination of its 21st year, and its last show in the State Theatre before it undergoes renovations. Because it requires huge and particular resources, Flaherty and Ahren’s musical, Ragtime, is rarely performed, and though the score is revered among musical theatre enthusiasts, this is the first time a fully staged professional production has been seen in Australia. And what a triumph it is.

Based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime is set in the United States in the early 20th Century. It tells the stories of three disparate groups – African Americans, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr (Kurt Kansley), a Harlem Musician – upper class suburbanites, represented by Mother (Georgina Hopson), the matriarch of a white New York family – and Eastern European immigrants, represented by Tateh (Alexander Lewis), a Jewish immigrant from Latvia.

It also incorporates historical figures including Emma Goldman (Sage Douglas), Evelyn Nesbit (Mackenzie Dunn) Henry Ford (John O’May), J.P Morgan (Anton Berezin), Willie Gonklin (Matt Hamilton), Harry Houdini (Louis Lucente), and a host of other characters, all of whom introduce themselves, speaking in the third person, in the spectacular opening number.

Utilising an uncluttered set design by Christina Smith, consisting of a long walkway above the orchestra, flanked by moveable staircases either side, a huge LCD screen above the staircase displaying handsome black and white images, and the lighting wizardry of Nigel Levings, director, Roger Hodgman has created a stylish, constantly evolving pageant of stunning stage pictures  which capture the historical sweep of the story without losing the humanity of the characters portrayed in the interlocking stories.

Fastidious casting has resulted in an extraordinarily accomplished cast who portray the myriad of characters who people Terrence McNally’s finely crafted book, led by Kurt Kansley, who returned from London to play the proud and fiery ragtime musician, Coalhouse Walker Jr, who becomes the catalyst for the events which propel the storyline.

Among an outstanding cast, Chloe Zuel, recently seen as Anita in Opera Australia’s  production of West Side Story, is unforgettable as Walker’s sweet young wife, Sarah,  Her interpretation of Your Daddy’s Son is achingly beautiful.

Alexander Lewis brings considerable star quality and superb vocals to his characterisation as the Latvian migrant, Tateh, his duet Our Children, with Georgina Hopson, (Mother) providing just one of an evening of highlights. Among those not already mentioned in this topline cast, John McTernan (Grandfather), Adam Murphy (Father), Finn Alexander (Younger Brother) all shone in smaller roles, especially Ruva Ngwenya (Sarah’s Friend) with her assured soul singing.

On opening night Kempton Maloney and Summer Hamilton both gave assured performances as the Little Boy and Little Girl, while tiny Noah Nzenza brought the audience undone as Coalhouse Walker 111.

A magnificent ensemble of actor/singers and a superb orchestra conducted by Guy Noble thrilled with the succession of stirring anthems and ballads which make up Flaherty and Ahrens’ sumptuous score, while choreographer Dana Jolly takes full advantage of the opportunities provided by Isaac Lummis’ graceful costumes to pleasure the eyes with her imaginative dance creations.

All of which adds up to an unforgettable evening of musical theatre destined to imbed itself in the memories of all those lucky enough to experience it, and a fitting tribute to the contribution Jeanne Pratt and her The Production Company have made to the musical life of Melbourne and beyond.

State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Saturday 2 November 2019 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 10 November 2019
Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au

For more information, visit: www.theproductioncompany.com.au for details.

Image: The Australian Cast of Ragtime – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Bill Stephens OAM